- A Return to the Iron Fist
In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighboring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world. For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline. Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years. Even after such a long period of mounting pressure on democracy, developments in 2014 were exceptionally grim. The report’s findings show that nearly twice as many countries suffered setbacks as registered gains, 61 to 33, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began.
This pattern held true across geographical regions, with more declines than gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and an even split in Asia-Pacific. Syria, a dictatorship mired in civil war and ethnic division and facing uncontrolled terrorism, received its worst Freedom in the World country score in more than a decade.
The lack of democratic gains around the world was conspicuous. The one notable exception was Tunisia, which became the first Arab country to achieve the status of Free since Lebanon was gripped by civil war forty years ago. By contrast, a troubling number of large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries moved backward: Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, and Azerbaijan. There were also net declines across five of the seven categories of democratic [End Page 122] indicators assessed by the report. Continuing a recent trend, the worst reversals affected freedom of expression, civil society, and the rule of law. In a new and disquieting development, a number of countries lost ground due to state surveillance, restrictions on Internet communications, and curbs on personal autonomy.
Explicit Rejection of Democratic Standards
Just as disturbing as the statistical decline was the open disdain for democratic standards that colored the words and actions of autocratic governments during the year. Until recently, most authoritarian regimes claimed to respect international agreements and paid lip service to the norms of competitive elections and human rights. They now increasingly flout democratic values, argue for the superiority of what amounts to one-party rule, and seek to throw off the constraints of fundamental diplomatic principles.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including the outright seizure and formal annexation of Crimea, is the prime example of this phenomenon. The Russian intervention was in direct violation of an international agreement that had guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity. President Vladimir Putin made his contempt for the values of liberal democracy unmistakably clear. He and his aides equated raw propaganda with legitimate journalism, and treated human-rights activists as enemies of the state.
In Egypt, the rise of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been accompanied by a relentless campaign to roll back the gains of the Arab Spring. In an unprecedented trampling of the rule of law, Egyptian courts sentenced 1,300 political detainees to death in a series of drumhead trials that lacked the most basic elements of due process. Under Sisi, a once-vibrant media sector has been bent into submission, human-rights organizations suppressed to the point where they can no longer operate, foreign scholars barred, and domestic critics (both secular and Islamist) arrested or forced into exile.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidated power during the year and waged an increasingly aggressive campaign against democratic pluralism. He openly demanded that media owners censor coverage or fire critical journalists, told the Constitutional Court that he does not respect its rulings, threatened reporters (and rebuked women journalists), and ordered radical changes to the school curriculum. Having risen from the premiership to the presidency in August, he formed a “shadow cabinet” that allows him to run the country from the presidential palace, circumventing constitutional rules and the ministries of his own...